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Extremes and their limits: 5 questions with Valerie Olson

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This interview was conducted during Valerie Olson’s visit to Washington University in St. Louis on March 30. The interviewer, Analeah Rosen, is a Mellon Sawyer graduate associate and MFA student in Fiction.

Analeah Rosen: What is your current work?

Valerie Olson: I would say I’m engaged in three projects. I’m just ending one, although I think it will continue. It is an ethnography of outer space as an environment — taking into consideration the history of outer space as a space in which environmental science and technology, from the mid-century through the contemporary time, was established. My second project is on the BP spill, and I’m looking at the restoration economy in the Gulf of Mexico and trying to ask questions about the ways in which BP fines and moneys are being used as a result of the pollution at the end of the spill. And I’m also interested in watersheds as spatial areas. So my third project is in the Santa Ana watershed, on what we’re calling hydrosocial justice, looking at the ways in which the coordination of water delivery and management in the Santa Ana area is executed in relation to issues of race and class and water access and use.

AR: Are these projects becoming more collaborative as you go?

VO: Collaboration is a great question. Because I’m interested in areas that are large and extreme, and areas that exceed the boundaries of everybody’s everyday perception and embodied experience, I've been acutely aware the whole time I’ve been doing my space work and working on these other projects, the extent to which collaboration has been a part of my work, but the disconnect between the extent to which my work is collaborative with interlocutors, with other anthropologists, with people across disciplines, and the ways in which those things become erased by being mentions in bibliographies or footnotes, and that kind of thing. The reason I would say that collaboration is growing for me is because it’s the difference between starting a project in graduate school, where you’re expected to do it yourself, getting a job, and moving through the process from an assistant to an associate professor. I’m empowered to make decisions about the extent to which I can be collaborating in a way I couldn’t as a grad student. So there’s a political economy to collaboration in the academy that I’m really interested in, and I’m incredibly interested in seeing it transform and shift.

AR: Right, so you no longer have to see yourself as being capable of creating ideas in a vacuum, or you don’t have to prove yourself as being able to be this filtration or ciphering system for theories and ideas and then putting them forth as your own.

VO: Yes, though I think I am still doing this. Because the metrics for promotion and merit are still linked to the single-authored article and the single-authored monograph. I’ve established that as an assistant professor, I will still be held to those standards, because they’re the normative standards. But I can also engage in other activities and perhaps still control to some extent how those activities get recognized. I know that my department is very interested in this as an issue. Our chair, Kim Fortun, is very interested in it. And I see a brighter future based on the kinds of collaborations that some of our senior scholars have done in our department, so I’m hoping there will be more opportunities for recognizing collaboration.

AR: What’s your ideal collaboration for one of your projects? This watershed project, are you thinking in terms of collaboration for it?

VO: It’s been collaborative from the very beginning. We’re collaborating across institutions, working between the University of California and the California State University system and also trying to enroll community-based organizations and other people with local knowledge and expertise as collaborators, although not to the extent that we probably could. But the next phase of the project, if we’re able to do it, would allow for more community-based collaboration for the evaluation of this project that we’re doing now.

AR: For the final project, are you thinking of co-writing articles?

VO: At this point it’s a collaboration between me and the postdoc working with me on the project. And we have already envisioned and are working on co-authored documents, roughing them out and thinking about them. But I’m also aware that for her career, she needs single-authored work, so for her interests, she’ll have different needs, but we’re going to try and work on that and be mindful of that as we move forward. In terms of other kinds of collaborations, it will be interesting to see how it plays out — whether or not we’re able to collaborate with co-authored pieces. The other interesting thing is that we will of course all be collaborating on a report, but that is grey literature, it doesn’t count in the academy necessarily, it doesn't have the same weight as a peer reviewed article. But again that brings up another dimension of collaboration politics, which is why do some documents that take, in effect, probably even more work to produce than articles, and maybe involve years of work and lots of data, then get evaluated, because they’re not peer reviewed, as insignificant compared to peer reviewed articles?

AR: Right, they probably have greater public outreach and are more public facing and translatable into the everyday politics of how we experience the watersheds, or how we experience oil.

VO: Right, the metrics for evaluating the impact of a peer reviewed article is just for academics. What are the metrics for evaluating the social impact of an actual piece of non-academic publicly facing work? There’s no metrics for that. I’m actually working with a scientist at UC Irvine to interview our peers and get a better sense of how they do or do not understand the social impact of their work. Social impact comes down from above as being even at the NSF level as being the goal for all scientific work. The problem is, where is that being measured? How is it being measured? And how is it being understood from the perspective of people and communities outside the academy, versus our own scholarly understanding?

“Relation in and of itself implies connection, but the hidden dimension, the opposite, is separation. But I don’t see it as an opposite, I see it as an interactive component. What constitutes relationality is the dimension in which that works.”

AR: What is it that inspires your work on your three current projects?

VO: I would have to say that what interests me deeply is how people understand themselves to be in relation to other beings and other things, and when they don’t. And to what extent embodied experience is a part of how people figure out ways to think about their relationships, their connectedness and disconnectedness with other things. So when I think of relationality and relation, I’ve redefined it in my work as being not just connection, but also separation. Relation in and of itself implies connection, but the hidden dimension, the opposite, is separation. But I don’t see it as an opposite, I see it as an interactive component. What constitutes relationality is the dimension in which that works. So I think everyday experience is made up of processes of connection, disconnection, relation and separation, and I think trying to figure out how all those senses and actions related to those things are part of our experience, how they’re constructed, how we experience them, comes together. And it came out of the greatest class I had as an undergrad, the class that blew my mind. We have these stories in anthropology, and I’m sure you have them in your discipline, the moment your mind got blown and you thought, “this is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.” It was a class on cosmology and I think what interested me in it was the way in which thinking about cosmologies allows you to think about the things around you that you relate to in the everyday, and then the shift to the absolutely imaginable — the distant, the imaginable, the intangible. So the ways in which cosmologies and cosmological thinking and experience allows you to connect those things. That led me to thinking about systems, and environments, and ecologies as being formations that are used in contemporary modern contexts as ways of thinking about that.

“For people who work every day with stone, there’s nothing extreme about those relations.”

AR: I think that’s a really interesting thread in your work. The connectedness and the disconnectedness between the absolute extreme of what we can imagine as being possible to connect with, so these huge solar systems, or the Gulf which also has these fuzzy borders, and in this new project, watersheds. They’re just these massive, non-personable entities that we have relations of connection and disconnection to. There was a speaker here, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, who writes about relations with what he considers the most unthinkable of ecological phenomenon, which is stone. So how can we have a complicated relationship with something that is the most extreme example of an ecological phenomenon, something that is non-living essentially? I think that’s really interesting, this going to the furthest case example.

VO: But I think that the more fun thing about that is to realize that it’s only extreme in the Western imagination. For people who work every day with stone, there’s nothing extreme about those relations. And that is the interesting thing, the way in which those shift. The way in which you can go into one culture and you can see this in some of the relationships that were mapped out during the space program — Native American reactions to landing on the moon, Indigenous Australian reactions to that, and normative, hegemonic American reactions to it, and that is the funny thing about the extreme, it can shift completely around.

AR: What does the term waste evoke for you?

VO: I think if you would have asked me this before I started my projects, I would have given you one answer. But because I’ve been colonized by systems-thinking through the multiple projects I’ve done — there is kind of no such thing as waste in astronautics, for example, because it’s often considered to be an equivalent substance with anything else that can be used as a recyclable material, a building material. Urine is a great thing to build radiation shielding with. I remember a life scientist, a physician, was telling me, the greatest thing about being an outer space physician is the fact that if you think about the interrelations of things, the way that they’re enculturated to do, there is no such thing as out there. You don’t throw your garbage out there into anything. There is no out there. Waste is a good thing to think with.

AR: Yeah, it makes those boundaries of space ship and out-of-space ship and space suit and bodily functions entirely transparent and permeable.

VO: They’re consequential. If you lose a wrench or something in outer space as small as a bolt, it’s flying around in orbit and it’s going to come back and potentially harm you. There’s also off-gassing in space — the plastics we have here on the table around us, that’s dissipating into our atmosphere here and a space capsule, it’s circulating. It doesn't go anywhere. Air has to go in, it’s being recirculated all the time, water’s being circulated. There is no exterior source for any of these things, so that means that the concept of waste is completely transformed. It’s also true in the watershed project, because I’m working with water district companies who are faced with the ironic problem that water conservation is not a very good thing in Southern California since water companies are also recycling companies and a lot of the water that we use on landscapes in those areas is recycled waters. So when people are conserving during the drought, it caused a dip in the supply of waste water, which then caused an impact in the very, very vast network of the use of recycled water in the area, for irrigation, for agriculture, for all of those kinds of things. So when you get into these looping systems thinking, then waste is transformed into something very different. It’s non-linear. So what it means to me is that I’m interested in how it might mean different things to different people. How some people are forced to live with it, but how in wealthy communities like the one I live in, it can be turned into a productive, and economically productive, material. The privilege to transform that kind of matter into something that can be bought and sold is an amazing thing, and it also troubles a lot of the Western notions of purity and pollution. We go back to Mary Douglas and all those ways of thinking about it.

AR: What are some of the practical and intellectual challenges of the field site in which you work or the materials you work with?

VO: One of the big challenges for me, which is why I’m so passionate about collaboration, is that I tend to take on these projects with ridiculous kinds of scale and vanishing degrees of spatial boundaries. So I get troubled by my own boundaries and material singularity and wish for more collaborative work with people in order to put together a better story. If ethnography is about telling stories, I certainly think that a much better story could exist by thinking outside of those boxes. For example, I like to think about the fact that my project was thought about in relation to other people working on outer space at the same time. For example, Lisa Messeri, now at Yale, whose work on outer space as place, and my work on outer space as environment, was part of our early interactions as grad students together in thinking about space. We’ve co-authored a paper together on the Anthropocene, and the ways that our thinking about space helps us to think about the spatial conceits of the western concept of the Anthropocene. I feel like I’ve always been accompanied in outer space by Lisa, and by other people working on this. But at the same time, space and boundary and spatiality and relational connections are challenges for me, as you also wonderfully helped me think about in my talk: How do you critique the system concept and think about space, but then at the same time represent relations and create other ways to signify these relations and yet not in the same terms that are being promoted? Those are great generative questions, I think those are limitations that I work with.

I think materially, so in this oil spill project, oil is problematic as a material in so many ways. A limitation or a problem that I struggle with is just the fact that there are so many permutations of it. Which ones do I choose to work with? Which do I not work with? What are the strategic and political stakes involved in choosing to work with oil on one level and not on another? So that’s challenging for me. I feel the same way about water. And outer space, as an immaterial thing, is also a challenge for me. And so, I worry to some extent about the focus on materiality and the ways in which immateriality — and we can all argue that that is also material, because the moment we say immaterial, I’m made out of material thinking about immateriality, okay I get all that, but side-stepping that problem, not leaving it behind but moving around it — I think that issues of religious belief, imagination, sometimes get tricky when there’s this idea of this material groundedness that we need to have. I like how Stefan Helmreich and Heather Paxson have been productively critical of the new materialism by asking how it is that the new materialism often times appeals to scientific knowledge as a given, rather than going in and saying, let’s look at how scientific knowledge constructs materiality and how does that influence our theory. So the whole turn thing in anthropology, I like how David Bond has called it a spin phenomenon, instead of a turn. What I get worried about is that these turns end up being ways of either discarding, as relation to waste — how about waste in theory? we can ask that question — how discard studies and theory work, how we discarded certain theories and then we focus on some things and bring them to the foreground. And that very act, haven’t we been instructed by critical theory to not be backgrounding and foregrounding and hiding and bringing forth and that kind of thing? It might be great to hold things together. How about if we’re going to have a material turn, what is gained and lost by that rather than saying “let’s address the tension between materiality and immateriality”? So that you don’t point a whole generation of graduate students toward materiality in a way that then causes them to have an immaterial turn because “whoops, we forgot about this.”

AR: I really admire the struggle in your work against a trending vocabulary of things, to say ‘Wait a second, this is mediated and constructed.’ The lenses which we are using are not accidental and they’re not natural, this has been constructed through the academic trendiness. Part of it is also, at least in philosophy and in comparative literature, a Deleuzean trend, where Foucauldian language and Deleuzean language are being watered through to the point that people are just replicating projects based on a couple of key concepts, like assemblages, and not really thinking about what is being left out, what is intangible and invisible. I really appreciate that in your work.

VO: I think I could credit George Marcus a bit as a mentor with this. And Kris Peterson and I are actually working on this right now, we’re working on a handbook for graduate students on project conceptualization. And one of the things to do when you conceptualize a project is to write a research imaginary — a couple pages of imagining yourself in the field. One of things that that exercise will do is it will surface words that you’re using, like “neoliberal” or “assemblage” or any of these other words. And what George would do is hand it back to us and circle those and say, “re-write this without using those words. And then figure out what you’re hiding in those words, and figure out what’s going on.” That level of conceptual development in projects in the get-go can be very productive for students because what ends up happening when you do that work is you see what the political stakes are in your object of study, when you’re forced to think of your object of study not as a theoretical term or concept that’s black-boxed, but as one that holds in it a whole set of ideas and questions that you’re forced to render in the process of conceptualization.

AR: What role do you imagine for the interdisciplinary field of the environmental humanities today and in the future?

VO: What a great question. I see it as a great space for really productive work, maybe even decolonizing scholarship itself. When you begin think about the environment and you think about it in the written and the literary form and you think about it in the material and immaterial, it requires, I think, a different commitment to a shared understanding of relations, the politics of relations, among people and scholars in a way that categories like the cultural and the social don’t. Environment holds within it conceptually, and I think ecology even stronger, a question about spatial relations at the level of the atomic to the cosmological, that goes beyond the geographic. It goes beyond the biological, and even the social in the classic sense. And I really hope for and have sort of a wish and hope for that to be a productive space for cross-disciplinary and maybe post-disciplinary work.

“Environment holds within it conceptually, and I think ecology even stronger, a question about spatial relations at the level of the atomic to the cosmological, that goes beyond the geographic. It goes beyond the biological, and even the social in the classic sense.”

AR: Can you talk a little bit more about decolonizing the scholar?

VO: I think this comes through in some of my conversations with some of my colleagues at UCI, the question of what it means to identify as a scholar, and what scholarship is. It’s a very old idea, think back to the scholastics of the Medieval times, and I don’t like substituting it with terms like “team” and things like that. But I wonder what it would be like to question what it means to think about that term, and whether that fits with the kind of work we want to do. I feel like as a scholar, that means you do scholarly work, and there’s a way in which that has a built-in boundary with it, that then leads to all the things we just talked about earlier, about how literature and documents and outputs are bounded. “Academic” is a weird word too. Like, “I’m an academic,” what does that mean? Well that means I’m a denizen of the academy. Well, I am, but I’m also a member of communities of all kinds. So these are words of segregation that I’m not entirely sure serve us the way that maybe they used to. But what do we do instead? I don’t know. We’re employees, but we’re all kinds of things in institutions. I also think that those words can imply that we exist to be served, rather than we exist to serve, and I don’t know how maybe to shift that around a little bit. I always liked the idea — even though it might be fraught — of being a public servant. I take very seriously the fact that I am supported by the tax dollars of Californians and I try to think about doing as much work as I can. Even when I’m doing my funky theory work on outer-space, I also try to work on other things that maybe have direct benefit to people, and I’m just hoping that we think about what that really means.

“I always liked the idea — even though it might be fraught — of being a public servant. I take very seriously the fact that I am supported by the tax dollars of Californians”

AR: With the graduate student union here, we have been talking about reconceptualizing WashU as a public institution, because there are a lot of tax remissions that WashU is allowed for owning tons of property in both Clayton and St. Louis. We have a lot of public funding, we say that we are publicly engaged. So what does that mean? Can we use that to break or create perforations in the boundaries that WashU creates for itself in the greater St. Louis community?

VO: Well, you bring up a really interesting point. When I was a young undergrad, feminist social history was questioning the public/private divide, and yet we so easily use that when talking about our own institutions. What does it mean that we allow that to exist as a meaningful distinction, and also as a meaningful distinction of hierarchy among academics? If you work at a private university, that sort of marks you as being more elite than those of us working at public universities — and what does that actually mean? What is being communicated to students and to the public through that? It just brings up really great questions to think about.

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